PROVO — Kirk Huffaker has a front-row seat for a phenomenon that is appearing in neighborhoods across the country.
Huffaker, community services director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, notes with interest the growing number of communities struggling to find uses for old schools that are compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
"This is something that is happening nationwide," he says.
Provo's Board of Education has grappled with the issue for nearly a year. Board members voted last year to close the 102-year-old Maeser Elementary School, 150 S. 500 East, and bus children who live in the central-city area to a new $7 million school in southeast Provo.
They planned to house several educational programs that were scattered throughout the city in the old building, which is believed to be the oldest operating school in Utah.
But a vocal group of residents, who fear the school's closure will dampen a budding resurgence in the once-downtrodden neighborhood, squelched that idea. They did not want social programs or classes for troubled teens to fill the building.
"This neighborhood is extremely active," he said, looking over a crowd of some 100 people at a meeting Tuesday to hear a consultant give recommendations for what the building could be used for after the district closes its doors.
Allen Roberts, from Cooper-Roberts Architects, urged the district to ask developers or other interested parties to send proposals outlining what could be done with the property.
But a task force of residents and district officials created to look at possible uses of the building should only consider proposals that would enhance the neighborhood, he said.
"Let it fly. Get a response," he said. "Then pare them down and choose the best one."
Roberts said it would be ideal if a private school or a college would buy Maeser to use for classes — similar to Salt Lake Community College's campus at the old South High School.
Or the building could be used by several organizations, much like Payson's Peteetneet Academy, which became a museum and cultural arts center after it was closed as a school.
The second option residents and the school board should consider, he said, is upscale condominiums. The city's zoning codes would allow the structure to be rebuilt for housing units.
Schools have successfully been converted into housing, Roberts said. He pointed to the old Madison School in Ogden as an example.
Although Maeser should undergo a $330,000 seismic upgrade and needs about $500,000 in renovations to make it accessible to physically disabled students, the building is sound for a school, Roberts said.
"Frankly, as a citizen, I can't see a justification for not using this as a school," he said.
But Provo's school district, which is suffering declining enrollments, can't afford to keep the building open when the new school is built.
Enrollment drives school funding — and not enough students live around Maeser to justify the cost of keeping it open. Growth patterns also indicate a need for a school in southeast Provo far more than in the central city area, officials say.
Voters in 1997 approved a $22.7 million bond issue to pay for new schools. A replacement for the aging Maeser — which has a small parking lot and playground and needs the ADA improvements — was promised to residents when the bond was passed.